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Terry McAuliffe keeps inflating coronavirus numbers

(Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

“Just this week, 8,000 cases on Monday in Virginia. We in Virginia today, 1,142 children are in ICU beds.”

— Former governor Terry McAuliffe, interview on WAVY, Oct. 7

“Today, 1,100 children are in hospitals here in Virginia.”

— McAuliffe, interview with WJLA, Oct. 13

“We just had 4,000 cases yesterday here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. … We’ve just 1,142 children in serious, in hospitals, in ICU beds.”

— McAuliffe, remarks at WRIC gubernatorial forum, Oct. 21

“Here in Virginia, you should understand, 1,142 of our children have been in hospitals because they got covid.”

— McAuliffe, event with former president Barack Obama at Virginia Commonwealth University, Oct. 23

How to respond to the coronavirus pandemic has been a major issue in the Virginia’s governor’s case.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former governor seeking his old job, has supported vaccine mandates, while Republican Glenn Youngkin has opposed them. Youngkin has been vaccinated, and has encouraged coronavirus vaccination. But McAuliffe has labeled him an “anti-vaxxer” because, McAuliffe charges, Youngkin sends a different message when he goes on right-wing radio or speaks to conservative audiences.

In speaking about the threat of the coronavirus to the state, McAuliffe frequently touts numbers — often wrong numbers about the impact on children. When we first queried the McAuliffe campaign about his figures, we were told it was a slip of the tongue. Okay, we understand that, and so we passed on a fact check. But then his tongue kept slipping.

The Facts

We first became interested in this issue when McAuliffe in the second and final debate on Sept. 28 said that there were 8,000 coronavirus cases “yesterday in Virginia.” He then repeated the statement the next day and a week later, on Oct. 7.

But when we checked the records, you had to go back to January to find a single day when a combination of confirmed and probable cases in Virginia got close to 8,000. On Sept. 27, there were fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases.

Nevertheless, the McAuliffe campaign came back with what appeared to be a plausible explanation. During the debate, he was speaking on a Tuesday and a spokesman said he was referring to the weekend numbers released the day before. The new caseload between Friday morning and Monday morning was 7,987 on Sept. 27 and 7,762 on Oct. 4.

One could argue that citing a weekend number in this fashion — “We had 8,000 cases yesterday in Virginia” and “Just this week, 8,000 cases on Monday in Virginia” — certainly would leave the misleading impression he was talking about a one-day number. But we got busy with other stuff and chose not to do a fact check. On Oct. 11, the Youngkin campaign released a video calling attention to McAuliffe’s remarks and the disconnect with the actual daily figures.

And what about McAuliffe’s Oct. 7 comment that 1,142 children were in ICU beds? That number seemed totally off-kilter. (For the week ended Oct. 2, the number of children in hospitals, not necessarily in intensive care, was just 35.)

The McAuliffe campaign said that he simply misspoke. Okay, we moved on.

But then he said it again, on Oct. 21: “We’ve just 1,142 children in serious, in hospitals, in ICU beds.” That was still wrong: on that day there were only 334 people (of all ages) in ICU beds in Virginia, according the state health department data.

(McAuliffe also said “we just had 4,000 cases yesterday here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” which again appears to be a weekend total, though he was speaking on a Thursday. Virginia has not experienced more than 4,000 confirmed or probable cases in a day since Sept. 20.)

A week earlier, on Oct. 13, McAuliffe used a slightly different figure regarding children, but it was still too high: “Today, 1,100 children are in hospitals here in Virginia.” The confirmed hospitalizations for all ages on that day was 1,471, and of course a smaller percentage of children get really sick with covid-19 than adults.

Finally, during the rally with Obama on Oct. 23, McAuliffe said: “Here in Virginia, you should understand, 1,142 of our children have been in hospitals because they got covid.”

This phrasing suggests that McAuliffe is talking about not a daily figure, as he frequently indicated — but a total since the beginning of the pandemic.

That certainly would be closer to reality. From March 15, 2020, to Oct. 16 of this year, Virginia reports a total of 952 hospitalizations and 10 deaths of children 0 to 17 years of age.

Why has McAuliffe repeatedly used a higher number than that? Good question. A spokesman for his campaign did not respond to emails and text messages over a period of four days.

The Pinocchio Test

We can understand the occasional misspeak, especially in the heat of a campaign. Moreover, as readers know, we generally do not award Pinocchios when a politician admits error.

But this has happened too many times for McAuliffe’s language to be an accident. He repeatedly mentions a weekend number for cases, but suggests it’s a one-day figure. He offers wildly inflated figures for child hospitalizations, suggesting again that these were daily figures and claiming twice that these many children were in ICUs. Instead, he appears to be citing a figure for all of the children hospitalized with covid-19 in Virginia over the past 19 months — which is still inflated.

The pandemic will continue to be a serious policy challenge for the next Virginia governor but there’s no reason for McAuliffe to hype the numbers. He earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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